"It's amazing, it takes your breath away," said Henderson, who started North America's oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program. "I never thought it my lifetime that I would be in a situation like this. I never thought that I would be a person on anyone's thought pattern that would be on the scale of something so great."
The 82-year-old will join Henry Boucha, who is Native American, and Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin, who has Nicaraguan roots, as the only people of color in the U.S. Hall of Fame when he's formally inducted at a ceremony in Washington on Dec. 12.
The selection committee and others from Washington and beyond lauded Henderson as a hockey pioneer who has helped grow a generation of minority players and fans.
"I am honored to receive this recognition, and I am proud of our work to build a strong and united community around the game of hockey," Henderson said Wednesday. "More than 40 years ago, we started the Cannons program to bring hockey to kids in Washington, D.C., who otherwise would have a chance to play and now it has turned into something we could not have imagined. Our alumni have become trailblazers in their own right, and the ripple effect of their work stretches far beyond the District. The Cannons inspire me every day with their perseverance, passion and drive for the sport and I share this honor with them."
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Henderson had an outpatient procedure Wednesday and wasn't on the conference call with the other four members of the Class of 2019 -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, longtime NHL players Tim Thomas and Brian Gionta, and two-time Olympian Krissy Wendell. But there were plenty of others who spoke about Henderson's impact and the significance of his induction.
Henderson "has been a leader in the community and has contributed immensely to advancing the sport in Washington, D.C., and beyond," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "His longstanding commitment to cultivating leaders through hockey, on and off the ice, does not go without notice, and we are excited Coach Neal is receiving one of hockey's most prestigious honors."
Lt. Col. Ralph Featherstone, a Fort Dupont alum who's the commanding officer of the U.S. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 225 based in San Diego, called Henderson's selection "a milestone."
"To be recognized by USA Hockey, to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, is kind of an acknowledgement for all those years of hard work and being a pathfinder and a wall-breaker, if you will, for an entire culture," said Featherstone, who was the first black captain of the United States Naval Academy hockey team in the 1990s.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., co-chair of the Congressional Hockey Caucus, said, "Thanks to the Cannons and the team of volunteers built by Coach Henderson, over 1,000 underserved and minority children have been given the opportunity to play ice hockey."
Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a hockey caucus member who represents the District of Columbia, put a statement into the Congressional record congratulating Henderson on his selection.
"Coach Henderson embodies the best values of the District of Columbia and its residents," Norton said. "This is a well-deserved induction into the (U.S.) Hockey Hall of Fame."
Henderson's program became a model for programs such as New York's Ice Hockey in Harlem, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation in Philadelphia and SCORE Boston Hockey, USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer said.
"From my perspective, it's just the grassroots effort to diversify the sport from within the neighborhood," said Rico Phillips, founder of the Flint (Michigan) Inner-City Youth Hockey Program and the recipient of the NHL's 2019 Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award. "The kids have an avenue within their reach; they know where that place is, their families know where that place is. That's where it (Fort Dupont) has been the biggest model."
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It's no coincidence that when the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, they brought it to the Fort Dupont Ice Arena to share it with Henderson and his Cannons.
"Neal Henderson is a pioneer in hockey in the Washington and Baltimore communities," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "We are fortunate to have an advocate for hockey such as Henderson who consistently brings joy to the sport while sharing his wealth of knowledge with kids. Henderson's work with Fort Dupont Ice Arena and D.C.'s minority hockey programs is part of our community, and he is a true ambassador for the sport of hockey."
Henderson started the Fort Dupont program at the urging of his son, who wanted him to teach the game to him and his neighborhood friends. The native of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands developed a love for hockey while living in St. Catharines, Ontario, where his father was stationed as a Merchant Marine during World War II.
Nearly a half century later, the program has helped put kids, many of them disadvantaged, on paths toward success by using hockey as a way to preach the importance of teamwork, responsibility, punctuality, manners and the value of staying in school and pursuing an education. It serves about 50 players ages 8 to 18 at no charge; however, participants are required to adhere to strict academic standards.
"Hockey is a tool. I tell kids this all the time," he said. "If you can do six things at one time, as hockey has you to do, you can do anything. It will only make you stronger because it makes you a team player, it makes you understand how the other person thinks, how he feels, how he moves, even if you're behind a desk."
Henderson has remained active in the program despite undergoing joint surgeries, caring for his ailing wife, skating in an old ice rink in what was one of Washington's tougher neighborhoods and fretting about how the free, nonprofit program would pay its bills.
He prides himself on building good people who happen to be good hockey players like Featherstone and Duante Abercrombie, a Cannons alum who briefly played minor league hockey and now coaches the Washington Little Capitals 16U National Team, which has produced several collegiate and junior players.
"The point that endeared me to Coach the most is when he showed up to my Naval Academy games," Featherstone said. "It was, like, 'Hey, Coach is still with me,' It's not like I left and was 'out of sight, out of mind,' and he's bringing Duante out to watch my games. That really meant a lot, having his support that way."